Just four months ago, Mayor Mick Cornett laid out the priorities for MAPS 3 in his State of the City address.
The Mayor said:
“From a quality of life perspective, there are two high profile shortcomings, two areas that, if addressed, would dramatically further our ascension as a city where people want to live.
The first is public transportation.
The second is a centrally located, large public park.”
The third project mentioned in the speech was for a non-quality of life element: a new convention center.
But fast forward four months later and you might be wondering what has happened. The campaign for a new convention center has been ratcheted up with the “release” of a pro-convention Chamber study and a coordinated media blitz, all topped off by a carefully orchestrated Mayor’s Development Roundtable that featured multiple “experts” (i.e. industry insiders that are unapologetically bias) brought in to propagate the pro-convention message. Meanwhile, public transit has received less, and less attention.
A NEW PRIORITY LIST?
On April 16-17, members of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce gathered in Stillwater for their annual Chamber Board Retreat. At the retreat, members of the Chamber’s board and board of advisors, along with top city hall officials, were presented a range of projects to be included in MAPS 3. It doesn’t appear that regular members of the media were invited to attend, but Leland Gourley, owner of the Friday newspaper, is a member of the Chamber board and offered this overview of the retreat in a April 24 editorial entitled, “Time to act on Maps 3.”
The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber has heard presentations on a number of projects that could be included in MAPS 3.
Five of them are [numbering and bold-type added for legibility – bh]:
1. Development of the South Side of the Oklahoma River;
2. Building a new, large Convention Center;
3. Create a huge, several block downtown park;
4. Add some needed buildings at the State Fair Park; and
5. Build a new research building in the Health Sciences Center.
1. The River Plan would cost $100 million and would be for development of the South Side. The North Side already is booming with private investors building boat houses and vendor shops. It already has built a national reputation. It has become, in the view of many rowing competitors, the best rowing facility in the nation. Ivy league colleges love it. It is a mecca for boaters with more boat houses.
But we need to develop the South Side of the River with emphasis on spectators. We can build a stadium to accommodate huge crowds to watch the races. Improvements could include family-type facilities. The plan calls for a foot bridge across the river, and within a proposed $100 million budget there would be $20 million to complete the American Indian museum on a hill by the river.
2. The New Convention Center proposal would cost $400 million and would put Oklahoma City up to the next tier of convention cities. We could keep the Cox Convention Center for mid-sized conventions, and draw on a whole other growing group of major size conventions. Lots of them.
Scores of professional convention locators have visited Oklahoma City and have been overwhelmed with the wonderful attractions we have here. They WANT to come to Oklahoma City but we are way down the list in size of accommodations, meeting space and exhibit space. So they just can’t come here. Millions of dollars are lost to our OKC economy because of this. Thousands and thousands of new jobs would be created by a new, large convention center. This is a top priority need for Oklahoma City’s future growth benefitting all.
3. A new downtown park is a vital need for Oklahoma City. We do not have a huge downtown park like most progressive big cities already have. A giant park, with underground parking the same size under it would be a great draw and an A-plus for our city. Initial studies say it could be accomplished for $100 million.
4. State Fair Buildings. To stay at the top in the type of competition in which our State Fair Ground is engaged, some new, enlarged buildings, estimated to cost around $76 mil would keep us in the running for year-around events.
5. Health Center Research Building. For $24 million, we could have a facility that could attract millions of research dollars from outside.
Other projects. After the above suggested projects, $300 million would be left for others.
Wait, why isn’t public transit on this list? And where the heck did the river plan come from?
It is not a coincidence that Mr. Gourley failed to put public-transit on the list. Rick Caine, Director of the Central Oklahoma Transit and Parking Authority (COTPA), gave a presentation of COTPA’s MAPS 3 proposal at the meeting. A presentation that apparently failed to inspire the business leaders in attendance. In contrast, Mike Knopp, the “driving force behind the development of rowing” on the Oklahoma River, dazzled the audience with a presentation of ideas for redeveloping the river.
So river plan in, public-transit out.
THIS ISN’T HINDSIGHT
Of course, we could have seen this coming. Knowing that public-transit was a top priority for MAPS 3, perhaps we shouldn’t have relied on the planning, leadership, and vision for the system to come from COTPA, a transit authority that specializes in parking, and has a long, long record of poor performance.
I have long suspected that COTPA would not be up to the task of overseeing the implementation public-transit for MAPS 3. On February 3, I commented at OKC Central the following:
Any idea how many of the more successful urban transportation departments are also charged with providing downtown parking? Or leasing bad retail space?
COTPA is broken – period. I can only hope that we won’t let this organization influence the planning and management of the new transit improvements that are to be included in Maps3. We need to take a step back and think about what it is going to take to have an effective transit system, focused on moving people, and doing so with excellence.
It is not all COTPA’s fault that they perform poorly. The duties they are given, along with a severe lack of funding, have set them up to fail. But fail they have and it is time to move on.
I say all of this with the full knowledge that there are
great people there, some of whom are working hard and doing a great job. Still, moving forward, we need something better than what COTPA has to offer.
Unfortunately, COTPA was chosen to oversee the MAPS 3 transportation pitch and has failed to deliver. If things continue at the current pace, then the people of Oklahoma City – who overwhelmingly supported transit in the MAPS 3 online survey – will be left with nothing more than a token gesture and unfulfilled transit dreams reminiscent of the original MAPS.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
In my opinion, the focus of a MAPS 3 transit system should be to create a transit-connected downtown. The immediate need is for an streetcar network that connects to existing assets (e.g. Bricktown, CBD, hotels, ford center, etc) and emerging assets (housing, Devon, Automobile Alley, new convention center, new Central Park, etc). This downtown streetcar system would represent a first step towards a more comprehensive metro-wide system with light-rail/commuter-rail to Norman and Edmond, and an enhanced BRT bus-network servicing a broader area of the city.
Plus, in the meantime, the system would benefit people living and working in downtown, as well as visitors, by providing a “park-once” environment. Basically, the idea is that once people park their car, they are able to experience everything downtown has to offer without getting back into their car between stops.
Jeff Bezdek and Mark Gibbs have stepped up the campaign for public-transit with Modern Transit Project. Transit proponents still have some work to do. The route recommendation that came out of the fixed guideway study is insufficient. The single meandering line proposed attempts to do too much, resulting in a system that: is overally costly, hinders future expansion, and fails to activate areas of potential. Regardless, there is still time to refine the plans. The first thing we need to do is ensure that transit is a meaningful part of MAPS 3, so people need to get behind the efforts of Jeff and Mark, and ask City Hall not to do a repeat performance of the original MAPS, delivering all that was promised except for public-transit.
TIME FOR A COMMITMENT
I think it is time for city leaders to make some commitments on MAPS 3. So here are a few questions that I would like to see answered sooner, rather than later.
It is clear that a convention center is a major priority. I am not campaigning against it and I am really not against the idea; I have reservations about the process and location, but let’s save that for another post. Here are my questions for now:
– How much will be spent? (if you haven’t noticed the cost of a convention center has dropped $150 million over the last few weeks from $400mil down to $250mil – I guess we found a coupon)
– How much public money will be spent on the planned convention center hotel?
– How much of the $100 million planned for the MAPS 3 downtown park, will be used for the parking structure which will serve the needs of both the downtown park and convention center.
The River Plan
I think the river is a tremendous asset and excited to hear there are good ideas flowing, but it is time for all of this to be made public.
– What will it include?
– Why haven’t we seen or heard anything about it?
– If public-transit is really a major priority, as the Mayor earlier claimed it is, then doesn’t it deserve the effort and funding being put forth for other projects set to be included in MAPS 3?
Say what you want about the old Cox Convention Center, but its level of insufficiency pales in comparison to the sorry state of public-transit in Oklahoma City. If the request of city leaders is going to be granted in the form of a MAPS3 convention center, then the request of the people should be granted in the form of a MAPS3 public-transit system.
It is time for a commitment. It is time for a plan. It is time for public-transit in Oklahoma City. Anything short of a complete downtown streetcar network, is simply not good enough.